For decades, feminists have decried the definition and interpretation of women by male artists. Now, locally based dancer/choreographer Loretta Livingston is turning the tables with a new evening-length movement/theater piece that explores the nature of men and their relationships to one another.
"The Men's Piece" (being performed Wednesday and Thursday at the Gallery Theatre, Barnsdall Art Park) features an ensemble of 13 men and examines relationships outside the traditional arena of competition in sports and at work.
Livingston may bring a woman's point of view to her subject, but this is not, strictly speaking, a feminist undertaking. An extended storytelling section is devoted to the creation of the first man by male gods drawn from Crow Indian, Eskimo, Filipino, African, Maori, Paraguayan, Melanesian and British Bornean legends.
This focus may be anathema to feminists who revere creation stories featuring female goddesses and progeny. For Livingston, "The origin stories are another device to reveal men, to define them through myth making. And storytelling is usually a male activity.
"Sometimes I think, 'What gives me the right?' " she admitted, "but I'm not defining. I'm just highlighting. Sexism and confinement--I'd like to crack that nut, and I thought that as a woman I might have a freshness, a different sensibility."
"The Men's Piece" marks the first time Livingston has used an all-male cast, and the first time she has worked with text or choreographed for non-dancers. The performers range in age from one year to 62, and only one cast member (her husband, David Plettner) comes from her 2-year-old company, Loretta Livingston & Dancers.
Ten of the 13 are non-dancers. Seven--a lighting designer, sculptor, real-estate appraiser, retired state corrections officer (Livingston's father), molecular biologist (her brother), caterer and architect--have virtually no performing experience. "It's risky," she said. "I'm really sticking my neck out on the block."
Why is Livingston choosing to work primarily with non-dancers in a movement piece? "There's something to be said for working with bodies that aren't idealized," she explained. "Untrained movers bring authenticity and honesty to the work."
Seen in rehearsal, the work is constructed from combinations of simple elements: phrases based on walking, running, handshaking, leaning, and leaping. "I eliminated movement invention as a priority," Livingston acknowledged. "Staging, interactions, and timing are the real parameters. Even so, the men had to stretch, learning to work in unison and to maintain energy and focus and stillness."
Livingston used reciprocal falling-and-catching exercises to develop trust and interdependence, and she considers partnering the greatest challenge for the men. In one section they take turns diving headlong into the arms of their colleagues: One man flings himself with utter abandon, while the next holds back and falls short. "Men are used to feeling in control," she remarked. "It's interesting to watch them rely on somebody else."
"The Men's Piece" includes a duet for Livingston's father and brother, and both men relish the opportunity to work with her. "I jumped at the chance to have an inside look at my daughter as a professional," said Rob Livingston. "We followed her around for over 10 years when she danced with the Bella Lewitzky Company, but choreography is a whole new ballgame and I'm really enjoying seeing how she does it."
Brother Brian added: "The main thing I got out of it is the chance to watch her work. It's quite remarkable the way she has been able to get us to move without being self-conscious."
For non-dancers in the group, initial feelings about performing ranged from "a little apprehensive" to "sort of terrified." Bob Bassler, a sculptor, admitted: "I was defensive to begin with, afraid of being put in the role of a dancer. But now I would be happy if it led to something else."
Relying on a female choreographer/director evidently poses no problem for the men, and a good-natured mood prevails as Livingston puts them through their paces in rehearsal. Bassler observed: "The roles are reversed and it's wonderful to see her controlling us. We're all having a wonderful time." Gary Spoerle, a caterer, echoed his sentiments. "I'm sort of a pawn: Move me here, move me there."
According to Livingston, the only problems have been on her side. "A room full of men has a different dynamic," she commented. "It's nothing they're doing, but it's intimidating and it requires extra work on my part. Problem-solving gets me out of that trap, and each rehearsal confirms the working process."
In fact, Livingston believes the development of the piece has helped strip away stereotypes, and the men agree that the group enjoys a special rapport. Dudley Fetzer, a real-estate appraiser, noted: "From the beginning, Loretta has stressed intimacy and getting rid of inhibitions. It's been terrific, and I feel very close to the other guys."
"This intense environment goes a long way in forming bonds," Spoerle said. "These relationships have the same intensity as the ones you form playing baseball or something, but much greater depth."
Is Loretta Livingston & Dancers in danger of abandonment? "The company members have been very supportive," Livingston said. "They know I'll start a new company work in February and meanwhile they're busy learning repertory."
Clearly "The Men's Piece" will not be added to the company repertory, but Livingston is far from regretful.
"It's very freeing," she exulted. "You can't get too precious because there's no time for crafting and fine tuning. It doesn't feel like a waste, it feels like an investment, and it's wonderful to just let something go."